The path to good-paying careers without a BA ain’t what you think

In 1999 Michigan Future, Inc. did research to identify the pathway young adults in metro Detroit without a four-year degree took to obtaining good-paying jobs. The research involved both focus groups and phone interviews.

The core finding of that research was that the predominate path to good-paying jobs for those without a four-year degree is what we described as rock climbing. As opposed to climbing a career ladder where there are known linear steps upward. Rock climbers have the ability to spot opportunities and take advantage of those opportunities and then repeat the process. Often in a different field and/or with a different employer.

For most without a four-year degree, more than a decade and a half ago, getting to a good-paying job was ad hoc and non linear. Far different than conventional wisdom then about the path to good-paying work for those without college degrees being learning a trade, either in high school or soon after, and then enjoying a well-paid career of thirty to forty years.

This year the Ralph J. Wilson Jr. Foundation asked us to update that 1999 study. This time including all workers without a four-year degree in good-paying jobs in the regions they are working in: Buffalo and Detroit.

The research was done by ROI Insight. In both regions they conducted focus groups and internet and phone surveys of individuals with an income of at least $40,000 who do not have a four-year degree. The results of the focus groups can be found here. The household survey results here.

What we found was quite consistent with the research we did more than a decade and a half ago.

The common belief that the way those without a four-year degree get good-paying work over a forty-year career is by learning a trade––primarily in the blue collar skilled trades, health care, and technology and engineering––in high school or soon after turns out to be true for a minority of those in good-paying jobs without a four-year degree. The occupations that enable one to earn a good living are far broader than commonly assumed.

The more pervasive path is far more ad hoc than linear. And far less planned out or predictable based on one’s first job. It is folks who develop a set of non-occupation specific skills that allow them to become valued employees that enables them to get promotions and/or the interest and ability to learn new skills that enable them to move into more lucrative occupations sometimes with their current employer, sometimes with a new employer, sometimes by going out on their own.

There clearly are a set of good-paying occupations that do not require a four-year degree where occupation-specific skills are essential. Largely concentrated in blue-collar occupations (production; construction; transportation and material moving; and installation, maintenance and repair) and STEM occupations (health care; computer and information technology; and architecture and engineering) . About 27 percent of survey respondents were in blue-collar  occupations and 11 percent in STEM related occupations.

For those in other fields who make a good living without a four-year degree the skills that matter most almost certainly are not occupation specific. What emerged from the focus group participants and survey respondents is a description of those skills, clustered in three areas:

  • Rock climbing: The ability to spot opportunities and take advantage of those opportunities and then repeat the process. Skills like ambition & self-initiative; perseverance; adaptability & preparation; curiosity & job satisfaction;  confidence & humility.
  • People skills: People do well who are good with others, working in teams, working with management, etc. The collaboration and communication components of the 6Cs from Becoming Brilliant
  • Just plain old work ethic: Not just showing up on time but also going the extra mile to do what needs to get done, taking initiative, etc.

Paul King, President, ROI Insight, summarizes the findings on skills and training of both the quantitative and qualitative research this way:

  • The pathway to success continues to be analogous to rock climbing – an ad-hoc, non-linear track that includes lateral moves – but this survey reveals a variety of rock (career) climber types, based on their experiences, education and motivation.
  • Being adaptable, resourceful, curious, patient, persistent and kind are qualities found in most individuals interviewed. They see these traits as necessary for advancing in their careers and believe there is a need to teach younger individuals coming into the workforce these traits.
  • People skills are valued more than technical skills. However, when it comes to training, they place a higher value on self-taught skills or those learned on the job, above those learned in a formal school or program setting. This is reinforced by those within our sample who are in managerial roles, possibly having first-hand knowledge of the needs of the business.
  • While occupation and position influences income, there is little correlation with and individual’s education alone and income earned. Our research subjects who have only a high school diploma are generally as successful (in earnings) as those with an Associate’s degree.
  • Non-blue-collar workers are more likely to value people skills and see a need for more computer training, while blue-collar workers are more likely to value continual learning, work ethic and on-the-job training.
  • Most say that specific skills are required for acquiring and keeping their jobs, but most of them learn those skills on-the-job.
  • The research suggests that a two-tiered training approach may be in demand, with a first tier focusing on highly valued people skills and a second tier focusing on industry specific technical skills.

King’s last point is a lesson worth learning. The foundation skills for a successful good-paying career for those without a four-year degree are not primarily occupation-specific skills. There are a set of so-called soft skills as well as lifelong learning skills that come first. Rather than pushing other people’s kids into occupation-specific training, we need an education system that is designed to build these broad skills in all students.


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